ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Hopkins’ Legacy

Robert Hopkins lived a life in the shadows until his only son died of AIDS.

In 1945, Robert Hopkins, then a 24-year-old Army combat photographer, snapped the iconic image of the Big Three at Yalta-Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, seated side by side at Livadia Palace after hashing out the fate of postwar Europe. The photo never carried Hopkins' credit.

Later, Hopkins became a screenwriter for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox Film Corp., but you won't find his name on any film scripts. After Hollywood, Hopkins and his wife, Brenda, lived in Paris, and mingled with designer Coco Chanel and entertainer Maurice Chevalier. Hopkins was Washington royalty, the son of Harry Hopkins-FDR's New Deal administrator-and a personal friend of the president and first lady.

Hopkins existed in a public world, but he lived a secretive life. In Europe, he began a long career as an undercover CIA agent. He held numerous posts, lived for a time in Argentina, and eventually became the national intelligence officer for Latin America.

The couple returned to the United States in the mid-1960s, and like so many CIA families, they learned to live life among walls. "They knew lots of people, but didn't know a lot of people really well," says Fred Crouch, one of Hopkins' few close friends in Washington. Another, Robert Wister, recalls, "There was always a part of their lives-their professional lives-that they had to hide." Hopkins retired from the CIA in 1980.

On Oct. 6, 1990, the Hopkins' only child, Sean, died of AIDS at the age of 26. Robert and Brenda lived for Sean, and when he died, his father naturally might have stayed out of the public world where he'd left anonymous marks. Instead, Hopkins came out of the shadows. "I think after retirement they blossomed, and then blossomed again in some ways after Sean's death," Wister says.

It started with small dinners for Sean's friends and his partner at the Hopkins' home in the quiet Berkley neighborhood of Northwest Washington. Sean's parents were heartened by his friends' fond memories, and in turn they found the couple unusually sympathetic. These were truly "straight allies," friends without judgment whose embrace made AIDS more bearable. The dinner parties grew to include friends of friends. Brenda regularly scanned the Washington Blade, the city's gay newspaper, for AIDS death notices, and invited the surviving partners for a meal. Eventually, the Hopkins inherited a second family, and a second life.

Over the years, advancements in AIDS and HIV treatment turned the disease from a death sentence to a manageable condition. The number of friends in the Hopkins' house dwindled. Brenda died in 2002, and Robert was mostly alone. When he died, in January, Crouch says just a few close friends and family members remained.

But Hopkins left a legacy. In 1996, he published perhaps the first AIDS memoir by the parent of a dying child. Sean's Legacy: An AIDS Awakening (Triumph Books), chronicles Sean's grueling illness and his parents' ceaseless devotion. It stands as a historical record of the early fight against the disease. But it's also a break with the secrecy that once enveloped its author. The reader is granted intimate, emotional access that Hopkins, by nature, rarely gave. He is revealed as a faithful ally of the fallen and a dedicated agitator: The book includes personal correspondences with longtime friend and former CIA director, George H. W. Bush, imploring the president to address the AIDS crisis in national policy.

Hopkins wrote Sean's Legacy hoping it would outlive him. That must have spurred his second memoir, covering his years as a combat photographer and friend of the powerful.

Replete with historic and previously uncredited pictures, the book is aptly titled Witness to History: Recollections of a WW II Photographer (Castle Pacific Publishing Co., 2003). A review by Hopkins' friend and eminent historian, the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., is an epitaph for Hopkins' written legacy and for the man: "Honest, forthright, unpretentious and readable."

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec